Monday, June 7, 2010
Toupee?: "Not me!"
-"Suffer the death of thy neighbor, eh Spock? Now, you wouldn't wish that on us, would you?"
-"It might have rendered your history a bit less bloody."
The above quotes are from a conversation between Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock in the Star Trek episode "The Immunity Syndrome". The underlying gist of the exchange relates to a humanist concept of empathy - if we humans could really feel each other's pain and figuratively stand in each other's shoes, how different would our history have been? Would absolute empathy be desirable - it would make it almost impossible to do purposeful harm to others - or would it actually be too painful, too unbearable to experience the suffering of others?
Which brings us to a segment from a series of appearances that Bill Shatner made in the mid-seventies on a game show called Match Game. An episode of this show recently surfaced on YouTube and contains a moment related to Bill Shatner and toupees in which a painful, cringe-worthy, almost unbearable moment of absolute empathy from anyone watching it would seem to be the most obvious emotion.
Now, we don't know any potential behind-the-scenes personality clashes or resentments that might have made the question - "I've just invented an amazing new way to keep my toupee on forever. I'm going to blank it to my head" - a deliberate attempt to embarrass Bill Shatner (or to just have a little fun at his expense). So instead, we'll assume that it was just an unfortunate coincidence.
As soon as the question is asked, we the in-the-know audience, sense that poor Bill Shatner has become deeply uncomfortable - his body-language is a dead giveaway. When fellow panelist Anne Meara innocently says "You're wrong, Bill" again there is an instinctive discomfort visible in Bill Shatner, a fear that the toupee issue may be dwelled upon. Yet, no-one else on Match Game appears to be grinning, smirking or in any way feeling Bill Shatner's Tell-Tale Heart-like painful moment - they probably either don't know he's wearing a toup, or don't know that his toup-wearing is a secret. Indeed, at this time in Bill Shatner's career, the actor was in such a "Lost Years" lull that the spotlight was far away from both him and his toupees (the real toupee-related media attention would only come after the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979).
One of the ironies of the "I don't wear a hairpiece" line taken by Bill Shatner until the thawing of absolute denialism that has occurred in recent years, is that moments like the above produce an empathic response in us viewers that, if the official line is to be believed, is entirely in our own minds. In other words, if Bill Shatner's hair was and is real, our wincing at the above clip would actually be down to our own deluded mind-set and not the objective reality, in which there was no discomfort at all for Bill Shatner. Mind-boggling stuff.
Yet, in the exchange, Bill Shatner himself says "not me" - it is an entirely unprompted response to the toupee question. In a sense he is denying something that no-one is overtly accusing him of, and by so doing, actually implicating or drawing attention to himself. Or, conversely, is Bill Shatner letting us in on the joke - sensing that the question relates to him (and knowing that we know that he knows that we know), giving the audience a subtle nod about his own toupee?
There is, as many of our readers will perhaps agree with, a fascinating duality about Bill Shatner's overall personality (self-mockery versus severe vanity, relentless self-confidence versus acute sensitivity, Zen-like abandon versus constant self-consciousness to name but three examples). Exploring this duality is arguably why he was such a natural sympathetic villain in Columbo, or gave such a great performance as a person split in two in Star Trek's "The Enemy Within" - his is a complicated mind (name an icon whose isn't, right?) and perhaps at the center of this internal struggle, at least in visual terms, lies the toupee. "I Am not Spock" Leonard Nimoy once wrote - no, but perhaps Bill Shatner is.
The full (apparently "banned") episode of Match Game can be watched on YouTube, starting here. Thanks again to reader Margaret for the tip!